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In recent days, we have been inundated with opinion and speculation about the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado. Last week the suspect, James Holmes, was brought before a judge and the nation got its first look at the gunman, with his mop top of dyed orange hair and dazed — almost carefree — look infuriating the country. Officials say he is on suicide watch and is in protective solitary custody.
Ever since the shooting, plenty of people have been weighing in on what they would have done had they been in the shoes of the victims that evening in Aurora. A lot of members of the gun-owning crowd have repeatedly claimed things would have been different had there been a citizen in the theater carrying a legal, concealed handgun.
They say that Holmes would have been stopped, incapacitated or even killed himself during the shooting. Of course, since only the people who survived the attack can know exactly what it was like to be inside that theater, this is all Monday Morning Armchair Quarterbacking.
In early 2011, I took a Concealed Handgun course myself out at the Arms Room in League City, just minutes down Interstate 45 going toward Galveston. The class was taught by Brian Mobley and Justin Franklin, trained Concealed Handgun License instructors. I spent hours inside a classroom at the gun store and on the accompanying range undergoing instruction and training in everything from proper storage, rules of engagement, verbal conflict resolution and gun safety. There is also a firing component to the training with a live handgun.
Even though I own a few handguns, I don't carry a concealed handgun wherever I go. My life is so full of bars and public places that it wouldn't be practical, but I did want to have the option.
One thing that stuck with me after the course was the section on rules of engagement and how a person would deal with a situation like the one in Aurora. I reached out to Mobley to get his take on last Friday's tragedy and to dispel some of the fanatical talk of the last few days.
A lot of gun owners immediately said that they would have saved the day and stopped the gunman. Mobley says that is false.
"The first problem at hand is that you have an active shooter. It's easy to say you are going to run down there like Clint Eastwood," he says. Instincts come into play before one attempts to engage an active shooter.
"The first thing that would happen is that you would be scared to death. Your first obligation is to yourself and your family."
With all the conversations I overheard these past few days, there was this strong undercurrent of omnipotence, the idea that just because someone would be carrying a weapon in that theater, he would have won the day and stopped Holmes in his tracks.
"For some, the gun gives them a sense of empowerment, with a guaranteed, positive result. A Hollywood image that we formed as kids, where the good guys won. The good guys don't always win," Mobley says.
Even if a CHL holder were in the theater and packing a handgun, he would be in not only mortal but also legal danger, according to Mobley.
"As CHL holders, we are still responsible for the third party. The law says that I am responsible for that as the gun owner. You would never forgive yourself if you would have added to the death toll."
Mobley adds that a crusading shooter would more than likely do more harm than good, his abilities impaired by the event itself.
"You don't know who or how many shooters there are, or if they are the bad guy. There could have been a trained, off-duty officer in there that wouldn't know that you weren't a bad guy yourself," Mobley says. The fog of war comes into play here.
The average person's skill set is different from what he thinks he can do when faced with such a well-armed opponent. Abilities will be cut in half by panic and nerves, and the fight-or-flight instinct will come back to hurt him.
"We do not rise to the occasion, but we sink to the lowest level of your training. You lose fine motor skills. You may not even be able to dial a phone. Things take a turn for the surreal," Mobley says.
It's all too easy to claim you would be a clear-thinking hero. Reality-based training, like timing yourself taking a gun from a holster, knowing how long tasks take you, would help in a shootout like this. But most people do not take their training beyond shooting at a paper target on a range.
"That's why police have a high percentage of survival in an armed confrontation, and that only comes through training," Mobley adds. The fact that Holmes had used smoke bombs as a shield and a diversion put the odds in his favor. A crusader would have been shooting into unknown territory.
Mobley says it's too soon to say whether the event in Aurora will mean that his CHL classes will be heavier now or that more handguns will be purchased. No one has come to him saying they want to take a class like this expressly because of Aurora.